Constitutional amendment through a historical lens

There have been plenty of education-oriented opinion pieces written about Senate Joint Resolution 9, the proposals to amend the Constitution to allow for public money to go to private, parochial and for-profit schools.

 

This is not one of those.

I am setting aside the education aspect of the proposed constitutional amendment and looking strictly at what this constitutional debate says about Alaska’s leadership.

In a recent opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, wrote, “With all due respect to the Governor’s concern about inaction on school choice for 11 years, the Alaska Native people have waited for more than 30 years for meaningful state action on the conflict surrounding our subsistence rights.”

Ever since the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act became the law of the land in 1980, the state’s subsistence priority ran into constitutional problems. The fix was to amend Alaska’s constitution by granting equal access to the state’s fish and game resources by all rural residents regardless of ethnicity.

In 1990, the state House failed by one vote to send the constitutional amendment to Alaska voters; sending subsistence rights into legal limbo and forcing dual (federal and state) management of Alaska’s subsistence resources. This occurred despite a majority of Alaskans in full support of a rural preference amendment; an amendment fully compatible with our statehood values.

By contrast, the amendment proposed in SJR 9 is not widely supported or consistent with our constitutional history. Rather, SJR 9 strikes at a core constitutional value. As noted by the Alaska Dispatch on Feb. 11, Jack Coghill, a delegate from Nenana, argued forcefully for the support of a public school system during the Constitutional Convention of 1955-56. Serving as president of the Alaska Association of School Boards at the time, Coghill made it clear that public money should be reserved for public schools.

“I do not deny the right of people to have their own schools,” he said. “However, I think that we should always look to the interest of the founders of our nation when they brought about the separation of church and state.”

Unlike a subsistence amendment aimed at restoring a basic tenet of Alaska’s culture and a way of life, SJR 9 aims to break down a basic protection — the separation of church and state. Julie Kitka reminds us that “this vital struggle to preserve our people’s way of life remains unresolved.” If Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Legislature want to go down the path of amending our constitution, they should first allow voters an opportunity to vote on resolving a conflict that has pained the Alaska Native community for more than 30 years.

When looking through the lens of political history, I am dismayed at what this resolution says about where our priorities are. Can we not focus first on constitutional amendments that solve problems and bring our state together?

• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas. She serves on the Juneau Assembly. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other assembly members.

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